Mike Leavitt

WASHINGTON — GOP senators say they cannot remember anything quite like it. But Democrats boycotted a committee meeting Wednesday to prevent a vote to confirm Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

"I've never seen this happen in this committee, or any other," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who has served 25 years in the Senate and 17 years on the Environment and Public Works Committee, where the boycott occurred.

"The only thing they (Democrats) haven't done is find a hotel in New Mexico," Sen. Christopher Bond, D-Mo., joked, referring to Texas Democratic legislators who fled their state to delay votes on district boundary changes they disliked.

Senate Democrats contend that Leavitt had failed to fully answer many of the 409 written questions submitted to him since his confirmation hearing a week ago. They demanded at least two more weeks to seek better answers and digest the 100 or so pages of answers that he did provide.

Committee rules require establishing a quorum with at least 10 of its 19 members for a vote, with at least two from the minority. All 10 of its Republicans attended Wednesday, but they were joined only by the ranking minority member, Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., who stayed just long enough to explain the boycott.

Interestingly, Jeffords, who said he personally plans to vote for Leavitt eventually, acknowledged that Democratic actions had less to do with Leavitt than with President Bush's environmental policies. He said Democrats have been unable to obtain answers to their questions for years and want them before moving on Leavitt.

"This is an opportunity we have to take to demonstrate our sincere belief that this administration is refusing to give us the answers. . . . The only time we have the leverage is when we have something like this," Jeffords said.

"I want to assure you this is not personal against him (Leavitt). He is a friend of mine, and I hope we can get the answers from the administration that have long been awaited," Jeffords said.

Committee Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., retorted, "If that's how you treat your friends, how do you treat your enemies?" Inhofe conducted a "show" vote, which is unofficial, showing that all 10 Republicans support Leavitt — a majority. So he noted that Democrats stayed away "to do what they could not do with votes."

Leavitt was in Washington for the "non-vote" but not at the committee meeting itself. He watched it on cable TV and then spent Wednesday meeting with senators attempting to answer concerns further. He planned to do so again today.

"I have found that . . . in politics patience is a virtue," Leavitt told the Deseret Morning News. "I will continue the path that I am on, and I continue to feel optimistic."

He said he was as responsive as possible to questions sent to him. "But many call for a judgment on the cases concerned," he said. "Rather than decide the entire caseload before them, it is best to realize there are two sides to every story. And as a matter of fairness, I need to hear from all sides before making decisions." So he promised to look into the issues and act appropriately.

Jeffords, however, said Leavitt failed to respond when asked his own knowledge or view of key environmental issues.

Inhofe protested loudly that Democrats have created a double-standard in how they judge GOP-nominee Leavitt and former EPA Administrator Carol Browner, who was nominated by Democrat Bill Clinton.

Inhofe released a side-by-side comparison of responses by Browner and Leavitt that showed both often vowed in similar language to similar questions to look into specifics of EPA actions after confirmation and to make any appropriate changes.

"Gov. Leavitt's answer, for some reason, is not good enough for the Democrats, though it was just fine for Carol Browner," he said.

"Could it be that this is all about President Bush, and the fact that he's up for re-election next November?" Inhofe said. "I would note that two, and possible three, members of this committee are running for president, one of whom chose to attend a presidential fund-raiser rather than sit through Gov. Leavitt's hearing."

Committee members Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., (who missed Leavitt's hearing) and Bob Graham, D-Fla., are running for president, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is rumored to be considering it.

Lieberman and Clinton have vowed to block a vote in the full Senate on Leavitt, as have fellow presidential candidates John Kerry, D-Mass., and John Edwards, D-N.C. All say they want a variety of answers about Bush environmental actions and will block any vote unless they obtain them.

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Lieberman issued a statement Wednesday saying, "If a job applicant had refused to seriously answer your questions, would you hire him? Until Gov. Leavitt comes clean and shows the respect for the American people we expect in an EPA administrator, I will continue to join a number of other senators and object to the Senate moving his confirmation."

Inhofe tentatively scheduled another business meeting for Oct. 14, when he hopes enough Democrats will attend to allow a vote. Warner said of Republicans, "We'll all be here."

E-mail: lee@desnews.com